How Airlines Can Benefit From Personalised Marketing — and How They Can Get Started Today

“When everyone is special, no one is” were the closing words for my recent article on TAM’s Ownboard initiative. It stayed with me as I increasingly mulled over why, when every other industry is focusing on making consumers feel special, the airline business struggles (or is unwilling) to do the same.

As I started poring through data and research, the first instance of personalised airline marketing came way back in the 1960s when United Airlines ran a promotion called “Take Me Along”. It targeted businessmen to take their wives along with them on business trips — a discounted “take me along fare” was offered.

 

Post trip, the airline made follow-up calls to the listed spouse, who sometimes had no idea about the trip that had occurred (ahem). Long story short – the businessmen weren’t happy with the calls. And the promotion was cut short.

In the recent past, Internet “Cookies” — that were nifty in collecting user information — were used by marketers to target their audience. Recent legislations and blocking software have reduced cookies to a shadow of their past usefulness.

Meanwhile, airline passengers now expect airlines to customise their entire experience — just like eCommerce sites do. The trick for airlines is to make sure that the passenger always feels in-charge – while he is being assisted during every process.

Which makes us ask: “Is it really possible for airlines to market to and target each passenger individually?” and “does it make business sense to do so?” The answer to both questions is a resounding YES!

Airlines need to adapt and evolve their way of reaching passengers. We are in a consumer driven market. It is critical to realise that marketing is not just about above the line and below the line advertising. Instead:

Airline Marketing = Advertising + Customer Service

Undoubtedly, the increasing number of media outlets have created complexities for airline marketers to determine when and where the passenger is located along the purchase journey. While this division poses challenges, it also creates a massive opportunity for an increased involvement across touch points.

At SimpliFlying, we focus on the Connected Traveller Lifecycle that recognises these touch points and their importance.

SimpliFlying - Connected Traveller LifecycleThe first of the five stages is SimpliDream, where the passenger starts aspiring and thinking of prospective travel. The following stages focus on Planning, Booking and Travelling, before starting again with the SimpliDream stage. Social sharing happens at all these stages.

Delivering one-to-one communications to customers throughout the cycle will not only mean a better user experience, it would also help in keeping passengers engaged and interested — these would potentially mean more revenues and ticket sales for airlines.

Passenger-facing technology is getting smarter every day. Passenger systems now let airlines track and remember passengers, their habits and their interests. All this information can then be used to make offers relevant to these passengers, in order to boost ancillary revenues.

At a recent industry conference, an analyst remarked that an airline executive once told him “we have so much data about passengers that we even don’t know where to start”. Astonishing as that may sound, it is probably true — airlines, like eCommerce websites, know a lot about us. But, unlike those websites, are yet to use this data to good effect. Airlines have known about “Big Data”, before it was even called that.

British Airways’ “KnowMe” program is a well-known initiative which blends loyalty information with data on passengers’ online behaviour and habits. Although privacy advocates have been up in arms about it, the airline itself has seen no such backlash from its “million mile fliers”.

Many passengers are willing to part with more data about themselves, provided communication to them is customised and contextual. Airlines need to be smart in marrying first and third party data to deliver personalised messages to fliers across the board, and go the extra mile in surprising and delighting them.

Consider this: A family flying together can be shown ads for Disneyland for their next vacation on their IFE screens, whereas a business traveller in the row behind can be shown something different — and appropriate — to his/her tastes. The messages they receive on other personal devices should reflect their interests as well, indicating consistency in personalisation.

In 2012, Southwest Airlines partnered with a company called SundaySky and developed a SmartVIDEO Demo:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvZOaFSLlxw

 

The clip above is brief but relevant, thus making it appear less like a typical ad (that accompanies emails) and more like public service information — but highly personalised. It could also have been featured on the airline website during a return visit to upgrade or check-in.

Although this initiative stalled, it gave us a peek into great possibilities — while demonstrating the advantages to both passengers and the airline.

The Rise of Smarter Devices

As per the latest SITA IT Trends survey, 62% of passengers book flights on a PC, which will go down to 53% over the next 12 months. On the other hand, Tablet and Smartphone bookings will rise from 27% to 37% by 2016. Pair that with Mary Meeker’s annual “State of the Internet” report, which recently mentioned that Mobile Internet usage is growing faster than Desktop – 23% compared to just 8%!

It’s not just smartphones and tablets that would make it easy for airlines to personally reach their customers. Other smart devices, like the Apple Watch, are entering the market as well. Airlines can now have a one-on-one conversation with their passengers and improve passenger experience through these efforts. The usage of beacons at airports can aid this shift, along with the ability to keep continuous engagement with passengers as well.

For airlines, adapting to this reality should be a priority, with far-reaching benefits:

  • Would help in understanding passengers better
  • Better passenger experience, resulting in higher interaction and sales
  • Increased customer satisfaction, leading to repeat business

Not only do passengers get turned off by inconsistencies across channels, they are also unimpressed when advertising is disruptive in the user experience.

Unfortunately, some airlines are still saddled with legacy IT systems, which makes the execution of certain efforts tough. We would recommend airlines to start with these five steps and scale up:

  1. Act on Data: Don’t just hoard it, execute it. For example: Merge your email data with information collected over social media, and past trips.
  2. Merge Basics: Reach out to inactive email subscribers by targeting them on social media.
  3. Engage and Customise: Humanise your airline brand on social media, and personalise responses to passengers. Consider personalised landing pages on your website, not just for the loyalty programme section.
  4. Be Flexible: As you take initial steps, be prepared to adapt and evolve with your experiences. Be open minded to realise bigger gains.
  5. Be Result Focused: Don’t be overwhelmed by the activity. Focus on the low-hanging fruit. Finding quick wins, setting the terms for long-term results would be a great way to kick-off.

The sweet spot would be a seamless customer data ecosystem that aggregates all data into an all-inclusive view of a passenger, which in turn can be used to execute personalised marketing — all the while extracting maximum value for airline marketing budgets. It doesn’t all have to be done at once. Small steps would be a welcome start.

Vishal Mehra

Vishal Mehra

Vishal Mehra is leading Social and Digital marketing efforts at SimpliFlying. A self-confessed commercial aviation geek, Vishal has led digital marketing campaigns at leading global agencies for 9 years, before finding his dream job at the intersection of aviation and digital marketing. His interests include Travelling, Technology, Podcasts (long before Serial arrived) and Beer.
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